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The Kings Book

It’s the winter of 1536 and the Abbot of Kirkstall has been informed that ‘King Henry’s inspectors are coming!’ What will this mean for the Abbey? Can the monks do anything to save themselves? Listen in to the monks’ conversations, as you stroll around the ruins, and find out how they lived, what they believed and how they coped with a fast changing world.

To listen to this Spatial Story, use the map to walk to find location.

Then play the video with the matching image or location text.


‘The King’s Book’, is a dramatic performance. Our characters are from the 1530s, and sometimes they express views that modern visitors may find offensive. They do not reflect the views of anyone associated with Kirkstall Abbey today, or the views Leeds City Council. 

Under the videos is our artistic statement about our approach to how we have used heritage interpretation for The Kings Book. It is followed by a glossary of terms and frequently asked questions relating to the story. 

Please click here for quick access to the statement, glossary or frequently asked questions

Or here to see the research sources.



The Reredorter

Lay Brother’s Dorm

The Cloister

The Galilee Gate


The Chapter House

The Parlour

Artistic Statment

As much as has been possible, we’ve used real facts about Kirkstall Abbey and the people who lived, worked, and worshipped there. However, in places, we’ve had to fill in the gaps with educated guess work and speculation. We’ve used many sources to gather information about what life was really like at Kirkstall Abbey in the 1530s.

As well as relying on the knowledge of Katherine Baxter, Sarah Allen and Elaine Francis-Truett, who work at Kirkstall Abbey, we’ve also made use of the websites, books, and papers, which you can find listed at the end of this document.


Abbot – The leading monk in the Abbey who was in charge of all the other monks.

Cellarer – A monk in charge of food and guests at the Abbey

Cistercian – The religious order that the monks of Kirkstall Abbey belonged to.

Commissioners – The men employed by Henry VIII to inspect the monasteries.

Desert Fathers – Early Christians living in Egypt in the 3rd century, monks tried to live like them.

Girdle – A type of belt worn by all genders. Holy girdles were blessed objects, linked to saints.

Lay Brother – A man who took vows to work at the Abbey. He was not a monk and was not educated.

Nones – One of the prayer services that made up the monks’ daily routine of prayer.

Parchment – A sort of paper, made from the skins of animals.

Relic – A religious object which was usually linked in some way to a saint, Jesus, or the Virgin Mary. Relics could be human remains, clothing, or other objects.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who were the inspectors and why were they visiting Kirkstall Abbey?

Henry VIII had sought an annulment of his marriage from his first wife Katherine of Aragon as early as 1527. He needed the permission of the Pope to do this. This was because the entire Church in England was under the authority of the Pope in Rome and any legal matters about marriage were decided by the Pope.

For various reasons, he was unable to get the Pope to agree to his annulment. Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and made himself head of the Church of England by passing ‘The Act of Supremacy’ in 1534. 

Henry began to turn his attention to the monasteries. Henry VIII and his advisors were worried about the monasteries and wanted to shut them down, partly to get rid of their remaining political influence which could be a threat to his reforms, and partly to obtain their great wealth and lands. He was also under pressure from some of his advisors who believed that the monasteries had strayed away from their religious purpose and had become corrupt.

Henry ordered his ‘commissioners’, men he employed, to visit every monastic house in England and inspect it. He wanted to find out who their founder was, how much they earned in rent, whether they had any relics, whether any of the monks wanted to leave the Abbey, and if the monks were chaste and obeying their vows.

Two of the commissioners sent to visit Yorkshire where Richard Layton and Thomas Leigh. Sadly, records of their visit to Kirkstall Abbey don’t survive, and we don’t know for certain that they visited in person, as they did sometimes send deputies instead. However, we do know that they reached the mother house of Kirkstall, Fountains Abbey, sometime around the 14th of January 1536.

We don’t know what they thought about Kirkstall Abbey as these letters don’t survive, but Fountains Abbey received a very bad report. Layton and Leigh wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell on the 20th of January, accusing the Abbot of being financially wasteful, unchaste and having stolen from the Abbey. He was quickly forced to resign.

We do know that Richard Layton had a bad opinion of monasteries in Yorkshire in general. On the 13th of January he wrote to Thomas Cromwell and said, “Here in Yorkshire we find great corruption amongst religious persons, even as we did in the South, and worse, if worse may be in kinds of knavery.”

Was Anne Boleyn really to blame for the closure of the monasteries?

No, she was not directly to blame. Anne Boleyn was one of the people who encouraged Henry VIII to make himself the head of the Church of England, and she had supported the closure of the monasteries. However, the idea of religious reform began long before she ever met Henry.

There is some evidence that Anne apposed the way that Henry intended to close the monasteries. Henry and his advisor, Thomas Cromwell, wanted to use the lands and resources of the monasteries for the Crown and various people at Court. Anne Boleyn however, wanted them to be redistributed to charitable projects, and to be made centres for education and learning.

On the 2nd of April 1536, Anne asked her almoner (a type of priest) John Skip, to preach a sermon based on a biblical story about Queen Esther. The story was about a King being deceived by his greedy advisors and being saved from this by his Queen. It was clearly intended to represent King Henry VIII, with Anne being his Queen, and saving him from bad advice about what to do with the monasteries.

We do know that Anne was unpopular around the country, and that some ordinary people blamed her for the decision to break away from the Catholic Church. By November 1534, Henry VIII was forced to act, and he introduced the Treason Act, which made it illegal to criticise or slander Anne.

Some people of course, did blame the King too. For example, a letter sent to Henry VIII on 12th August 1535 concerns the treason case of Edmond Brocke, an 80-year-old farmer who blamed the King’s religious reforms for the bad weather.

Unfortunately, Henry rapidly fell out with Anne in the spring of 1536. She was arrested for treason and executed on the 19th of May 1536. Her death came just a few months after the inspectors visited Kirkstall Abbey.

Servants and Lay Brothers. What is the difference?

When Kirkstall Abbey was first built, it was the practice for Cistercian Abbey’s to take in lay brothers, men who wanted to commit themselves to a religious life, but who did not have the social connection, wealth, or education to qualify them to be monks. These men did practical work, both in and around the Abbey, and on the farms and granges that would belong to the Abbey.

However, the tradition of lay brothers largely fell out of favour during the 1300s and 1400s. Various factors have been suggested for why this happened. One is various rulings by successive Popes, allowed the monasteries to manage their land differently, giving them greater power to lease the land instead of having to manage it directly themselves. Doing so reduced the need for lay brothers, as the monasteries no longer relied as much on granges staffed by lay brothers to manage the land – they could just collect rent from farmers instead. Another factor might have been the plague of 1348. For example, another Cistercian monastery in Yorkshire, Rievaulx, is recorded as having just 14 monks and three lay brothers shortly after the Black Death of 1348-1349. At the same time, Kirkstall Abbey had around 6 lay brothers compared to 17 monks.

The tradition of lay brothers did not die out entirely, however. As James Donnely notes in his book ‘Changes in the grange economy of English and Welsh Cistercian Abbeys 1300-1540’, some monasteries did hold onto a few lay brothers. For example, records for the Cistercian monastery, Sawley in Lancashire, note one lay brother called Kyd in 1481. In 1538, Cistercian monastery Kingswood Abbey had one lay brother at the time of the surrender of the Abbey, called Thomas Saymaure, who signed the deed of surrender along with the other monks. He described himself as ‘converses’ the Latin word for lay brother. He was likely not the only one at Kingswood, as a second converses, Thomas Lawrence, is mentioned as having been sent to a different religious house, in records connected to Kingswood around the same time. Some nunneries may also still have had lay sisters. A nunnery in Newcastle was recorded as having two lay sisters in documents relating to its surrender.

However, at the time when our experience is set, in the winter of 1535/1536, most of the non-monks living at Kirkstall Abbey would likely have been servants – not lay brothers. These would have men who did not take vows, and as such were not bound to spend the rest of their lives at the Abbey.

Unfortunately, we have not been able to find records about how many servants were working at Kirkstall when it was closed, or what any of their names were. We can make an educated guess based on what was happening at other Cistercian monasteries where records do survive. For example, in a letter from Dr John London to Thomas Cromwell from the 3rd of September 1539, the Dr records that the Cistercian monastery of Combe had 15 monks and 68 servants. Some sources suggest that nearby Cistercian Abbey Rievaulx, had about 100 lay people connected with it at the time of the dissolution, to serve around 22 monks.

The servants do not appear in any pensions lists, as only monks were entitled to pensions. When the Abbey’s were eventually closed, servants instead were typically paid a portion of their wages and then dismissed. For example, letters show that the 41 servants of Newark Priory were paid for their ‘quarters wages’ and given their clothes as a gift.

With no record of who was paid what therefore, it’s difficult to say how many servants belonged to Kirkstall Abbey. If the ratio was like that at Rievaulx Abbey, around four servants for every one monk, we can imply that a similar figure might have existed for Kirkstall. Kirkstall had 31 monks at the time of the dissolution, so there may have been as many as 120 servants connected in some way to the Abbey.

Who was the Cellarer?

The cellarer was a monk who had a lot of different responsibilities across the Abbey, including taking care of guests, making sure that there was enough food coming into the Abbey and overseeing the brewing.

We sadly don’t know who the cellarer of Kirkstall Abbey was at the time of the inspection.

Why where women not allowed anywhere but the Church?

It was Cistercian tradition, that Women were not allowed to enter Kirkstall Abbey, even as nuns, as it was feared that they would tempt the monks into sin. Cistercian rules banned all women within the precinct of the monastery. This rule was so strict, that it was many centuries after the establishment of the Cistercian tradition, that Cistercian orders for nuns were allowed.

Kirkstall Abbey did not permit women to enter the Church until given special dispensation by the Pope in 1401. Even then, women were not permitted to enter any other part of the complex and were only allowed access on a few days each year, and they would not have had direct contact with the monks.

If a woman had a relative who was a monk, she was allowed to send him a letter, but it would be down to the discretion of the Abbot whether he would pass on the letter.

Who was Dame Joan Thurcross?

What we know about Dame Joan Thurcross comes largely from her will.

Joan was a Hull woman, and a wealthy widow, who had survived three husbands, but remained childless. She was a ‘vowess’ – a widow who pledged eternal chastity for religious reasons, but remained in the secular world, unlike a nun or anchorite.

Joan’s will for 1524 shows that she had a great interest in giving money to religious houses. As well as leaving a gift of ‘plate’, meaning expensive tablewares, for Kirkstall Abbey, she donated to other monasteries and religious houses. She also recognised churches, giving £30 for vestments for St Mary’s Church, 40s towards building a steeple for Holy Trinity Church, and a further £4 for building work at White Friar’s Church.

Joan combined caring with the poor with the care of her soul. She left some money for the poor, to be handed out on the day of her burial, and on various days after her death, for mourning gowns for poor women – no doubt with the hope that the beneficiaries would pray for her.

It is possible that Joan chose to remember Kirkstall Abbey in her will because she had some sort of relationship with the house. Perhaps one of the monks was a relative, or maybe she had even visited the Church in the Abbey over the course of her lifetime.

What was the girdle of St Bernard?

The only mention we have of the girdle is from the very brief report that was given to Parliament about Kirkstall Abbey after the inspection. The report simply says,

Girdle of St Bernard for lying-in

This seems to imply that it was leant out to women, likely for a fee, to give them spiritual help during the process of giving birth – although, it may have been kept in the church for veneration as a holy relic. At least 15 similar girdles were recorded in Yorkshire being used for the same purpose.

Exactly what the girdle was made of and how it was used is not clear. Other recorded examples were made from wood, silk, iron, and leather, as well as parchment.

Tests have been carried out on one rare survivor, a parchment girdle known as MS 632, which was created around the 1500s. This does give some clues about how such a girdle might have been used. The parchment girdle includes drawings of a crucifix and blessings relating to the Saints Quiricus and Julitta, as well as a blessing, which explained that wearing the girdle could help with safe childbirth.

It has been noted that the images and blessings on the girdle look particularly worn, as if they have been repeatedly touched or kissed as part of veneration. Also, modern non-invasive testing methods have shown that the girdle contains traces of cervical-vaginal fluid, typically associated with childbirth, as well as honey which was used in lots of folk remedies for the birthing process. This all suggests that this parchment girdle was worn during active labour, perhaps by multiple women over multiple years.

It is possible that Kirkstall Abbey’s girdle was used in a similar way.

Who were the Desert Fathers?

The monastic tradition was based on trying to live like men known as The Desert Fathers. These were early followers of Christianity who lived in deserts around Egypt in the 3rd century. They tried to live simple, holy lives away from society and Cistercian monks tried to be like them.

The Kings Book was a R&D project to investigate novel forms of heritage interpretation using immersive technologies funded by XRStories. 


It was co-created by :

Kirkstall Abbey | Leeds City Council

Sarah Allen | Learning & Access Officer 

Izzy Bartley | Digital learning Officer

Katherine Baxter | Curator of Archaeology 

Lydia Caprani | Designer

Elaine Francis-Truett | Keeper – Kirkstall Abbey and Abbey House Museum

Jonathan Munro | Digital Learning Officer

Immersive Networks Collective

Sonny Bell – Intern 

Richard England – Creative Technologist

Jo Hutchinson – Intern

Dave Lynch – Creative Director

Reflex Arc

Ilona Wheldale England | Researcher & Lead Writer


Matt Brown | Sound recordist, spatial audio designer and producer

Yuan Gao | Guest Researcher | University of Leeds

Tom Jackson | Designer

Thomas Leech | Director of the Schools Singing Programme |  Diocese of Leeds


Ilona Wheldale England


Roger Delves-Broughton

Dee Evans

Julian Evans

Dave Lynch


Roger Delves-Broughton

Dee Evans

Julian Evans

Ilona Wheldale England

All the staff of Kirkstall Abbey


Choir of Leeds Cathedral 

(Senior Girls Choir, Schools Scholars, Choral Scholars) 

directed by Thomas Leech and David Grealy


Corpus Christi  

(Parish of St John Henry Newman) | Leeds

Joshua Kopecek


Hebden Bridge Town Hall

James Cragg

Graham Mynott


Interplay Theatre

Steve Byrne

Richard Oyarzabal


University of Leeds

Simon Popple


XR Stories

John Rose-Adams

Joe Reese-Jones

Nikki Stearman

The Kings Book Source Material

These are the sources we used to research this experience. 


  • Unknown, ‘Houses of Cistercian Monks’, ‘A History of the County of York: Volume 3’ Victoria County History, London, 1974. 
  • Conde-Silvestre, Juan C, ”The code and context of Monasteriales Indicia: a semiotic analysis of late Anglo-Saxon monastic sign language..” The Free Library, 2001,…-a092803252 
  • Claire Cross, ‘A Metamorphosis of Ministry: Former Yorkshire Monks and Friars in the Sixteenth Century English Protestant Church’ ‘The Journal of the United Reform Church History Society’ Volume 4, Number 5, October 1989 
  • M.L Ryder ‘The Animal Remains found at Kirkstall Abbey’ ‘The Agricultural History Review’ post 1958 
  • Pohl, B., & Tether, L. (2021). ‘Medieval Manuscripts in Ushaw College Library: A Fragmentary History.’ Catholic Archives, (2021). in-ushaw-college-library 
  • Elizabeth Salter ‘Women’s last wills and testaments in Hull, England (c.1450 – 1555) 31 May 2018 
  • Richard James Thomason, ‘Hospitality in a Cistercian Abbey: The case of Kirkstall in the later middle ages, Institute for Medieval studies, University of Leeds, September 2015. 
  • Sarah Fiddyment, Natalie J Goodison, Elma Brenner, Stefania Signorello, Kierrie Price and Matthew J Collins, ‘Girding the loins? Direct evidence of use of a medieval English parchment birthing girdle from biomolecular analysis’ ‘Royal Society Open Science’  10 March 2021 
  • Ziolkowski, Jan M. “Cistercian Monks and Lay Brothers.” The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity: Volume 1: The Middle Ages, 1st ed., Open Book Publishers, 2018, pp. 117–70. JSTOR, 
  • Ritchey, Sara. “Saints’ Lives as Efficacious Texts: Cistercian Monks, Religious Women, and Curative Reading, c. 1250–1330.” Speculum, vol. 92, no. 4, 2017, pp. 1101–43. JSTOR, 
  • Boynton, Susan. “‘The Devil Made Me Do It’: Demonic Intervention in the Medieval Monastic Liturgy.” European Religious Cultures: Essays Offered to Christopher Brooke on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, edited by Miri Rubin, DGO-Digital original, University of London Press, 2020, pp. 87–104. JSTOR, 
  • Donkin, R. A. “The Cistercian Order in Medieval England: Some Conclusions.” Transactions and Papers (Institute of British Geographers), no. 33, 1963, pp. 181–98. JSTOR, 
  • Newman, Martha G. “Real Men and Imaginary Women: Engelhard of Langheim Considers a Woman in Disguise.” Speculum, vol. 78, no. 4, 2003, pp. 1184–213. JSTOR, 
  • ‘The meaning of russet: A note on the vowess and clothing’, Michelle M Sauer, ‘Early Middle English, Volume 2, Number 2, 2020 pp 91-97, published by Arc Humanities Press
  • ‘The Female testators of Hull and Leeds’ 1520 to 1650, Claire Cross, Yorkshire Archeological Journal, Vol 59, 1987 
  • Harris, Barbara J. “Women and Politics in Early Tudor England.” The Historical Journal, vol. 33, no. 2, 1990, pp. 259–81. JSTOR, Accessed 1 July 2023
  • Thornley, I. D. “The Treason Legislation of Henry VIII (1531-1534): Alexander Prize Essay, 1916.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 11, 1917, pp. 87–123. JSTOR,



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